When her circus arts company was invited to perform in a library, Camille Bensoussan feared there would be endless health and safety meetings.

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Upswing is a contemporary circus and aerial company. When the Word Festival in London’s Islington invited us to create a family show for libraries, we jumped at the chance. But we had a lot of questions. Would the library staff know anything about putting on a circus show? Would we end up having countless meetings about health and safety? Would our work be disruptive in this environment?

No longer are libraries stigmatised as quiet, strict, stuffy establishments – they are now evolving into open community hubs

The environment we entered couldn’t have been more welcoming. We were met with a palpable hunger for something new and a team that wanted to make this project work no matter what.

New-look libraries

The Islington Word team alongside festival producers All Change Arts have commissioned all sorts of alternative, creative experiences for their libraries, illustrating a wider shift in the remit of libraries and what they can offer.

No longer are libraries stigmatised as quiet, strict, stuffy establishments – they are now evolving into open community hubs or being rebranded as Ideas Stores with expanded technology and arts provision to create new routes into learning. They have started to act as bridges to culture, enabling cultural organisations to reach more people.

We decided to link our library show with our family show Bedtime Stories, which was about to start its second tour. It seemed perfect to explore the themes of Bedtime Stories – childhood, contemporary family life and literacy – within a learning space.

So, ‘Once upon a pillow fight’ was born. Our 20-minute show, watched from comfy beds, was full of audience participation. It even had a pillow fight thrown in for good measure. The show ended by encouraging parents and children to stay and read together.

We were delighted by how positively families responded to using the library in such an unconventional way. 82% of the audience told us they would come back to the library after seeing the show.

We have gone on to tour the production to areas of low arts engagement, including libraries in Brent, Sandwell, Stoke-on-Trent and Newham. We even went one step further during our time in Stratford in London and created a bedroom installation for the local library.

Attracting new audiences

Pillow Fight opened doors for us to new partnerships and audiences. Simultaneously, libraries benefitted from our performances and the communities they brought together to experience something cultural.

The Audience Agency helped us track the demographics of our audiences. 57% of attenders were medium or low arts engagers. They were also from more ethnically diverse backgrounds than our Bedtime Stories audiences.

So, what did we do differently? Pillow Fight was free of charge, removing the principal barrier of ticket price. Crucially though, the show was taking place in an environment that was already accessible and child-friendly. Libraries are spaces where families of all kinds have always been welcomed, and are now becoming even more popular as free community spaces become rarer.

In Stoke-on-Trent, with our partner venue Victoria Hall, we tested a new model and installed mobile box office points in the libraries to sell £1 tickets for Bedtime Stories to audiences of Pillow Fight. This resulted in over 300 tickets being sold.

Art and learning

We started this process with questions and we ended the process with new questions. Could libraries play a central role in encouraging new audiences to discover and enjoy live performance? Could performing in libraries develop brand new audiences for Upswing?

Plans have recently been announced to look at the feasibility of relocating services from Highgate Library to Jacksons Lane Arts Centre. It has been met with various degrees of approval and dissent from local residents. “Art and learning shouldn’t co-exist in the same location,” was one comment that appeared on social media from campaigners opposed to the move.

I believe they are misguided. I understand they are trying to save their beautiful listed building, which is highly commendable, but surely it’s the actual service that’s most at risk here. I do not have inside knowledge but it is no secret that councils all over the country are struggling to keep their libraries open. I find it hard to imagine that Haringey Council will escape the effects of austerity.

Perhaps I sound biased. We have enjoyed an excellent creative relationship with Jacksons Lane for many years. Likewise, we have worked with libraries that passionately believe in the value of what they offer for the communities they serve. We have experienced at first hand that culture, lifelong learning and social wellbeing can work in synergy.

A positive step

Upswing is a company that embraces diversity. We know that one size doesn’t fit all. We don’t believe that libraries should conform to one model. But from my perspective, libraries collaborating with the arts can only be a positive step forward, which could address a variety of challenges faced by both sectors.

The performing arts and libraries may not immediately seem like the right pair to be joined hand in hand. But don’t both rely on diversification, innovation and collaboration? I think there may be times when circus arts and libraries may prove to be the perfect match.

Camille Bensoussan is Executive Director of Upswing.
www.upswing.org.uk
Tw: @upswingaerial

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Photo of Camille Bensoussan